How to teach your autistic child to be more flexible

Kids on the autism spectrum sometimes have a really hard time with what professionals call “inflexible thinking.”

Many believe this is due to the fact kids with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, get anxious when it comes to any kind of change. Anxiety can impact the child’s development in their social interactions, in how well they perform at school, and overall, how they function in life, including everyday events and for them, what they might consider extraordinarily challenging. Anxiety can keep kids from being able to be flexible when it comes to changes in routine, tradition or what’s expected.

This is probably even tougher today, because our worlds seems to be going much faster than it ever did in history. Consider how quickly we learn and ingest new information. A hundred years ago we needed a reporter to compile information, write it, send it to an editor, and then wait for that story to get printed on a press – today, that same reporter might write, edit, and publish that same story within minutes, and it’s on our desktops and phones nanoseconds later. A neurotypical person could very well experience anxiety from all this speed and change. So imagine the effect of this on an autistic child. While transition and change might be normal for the rest of us, the autistic child would not be able to embrace all of this as normal; in fact, for them, it means increased anxiety and discomfort. It’s easy to understand, then, why flexibility doesn’t come so quickly or without effort for the autistic child.

But, as always, there is hope. These strategies and techniques might be able to help you teach your child how to be more flexible in a world that’s demanding it.

Check for triggers. Do you find that there are specific times your child is overwhelmed with anxiety? Are you identifying a strong reaction attached to a specific circumstance or event? Even if the reaction is relatively calm (or calmer than others), it’s important to note and document so it may be avoided or minimized in the future. It’s less realistic to try to determine the trigger during the outburst.

Draw a picture or write it out. When you work with your child on their triggers and identify their anxiety, you can make it creative. Ask your child to draw an image of their “worry bug” or if they prefer to write instead of draw, to describe what this bug or event looks like in their mind. By writing it out or drawing it, and then talking about it together, you can work together to mitigate their anxiety. This way, your child feels heard, supported, and part of their own strategy to swat the bug away.

Go up and down the elevator with your child. Experts say that many autistic kids relate to the concept of an elevator when they think of anxiety. Here’s how: the lowest level is a little bit of anxiety, and the highest level is, well, their highest level of anxiety. Ask your child what floor, or level, they’re on, and talk with them about how they might be able to find their way down to a lower floor.

Rock to it. Go out to the beach or anywhere there may be small stones and ask your child to select one or two. Next, grab some moldable clay. Talk to them about this rock, and how sad it is that it can’t be changed. Beside it, show how many shapes you can make of the clay, and how much more fun it has changing its shape all the time. This is a powerful visual on the value of flexibility.

Change the rules. Grab a board game that your child likes and is familiar with, and play using traditional rules for several minutes. After some time, announce that you’re changing the rules, and make it fun! Show your child that flexibility can add to the fun and silliness of things, so that they can begin to see that anxiety does not have to accompany change.

Play musical chairs. Around the house, switch things up a bit from what your child is accustomed to, like where you might serve breakfast. Maybe you always have breakfast in the dining room, but you might try serving them breakfast in bed. Maybe you have a specific cup you always use for your coffee; show them that you’re using a travel mug this time. Flexibility can start with the little things.

Give praise. Any time your child practices flexibility, give them a reward, whether it’s in the form of verbal praise, or a coin in a “flexibility jar.” Name the circumstance where you recognized the flexibility and celebrate it.

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